In a series of overnight busts, authorities arrested high-ranking FIFA officials over allegations of vast racketeering and corruption involving more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks spanning two decades in soccer’s controversial governing body, law enforcement officials said.
In all, 14 people, which includes nine current or former FIFA figures and five involved in sports marketing, have been charged by the Department of Justice for allegedly “foster[ing] a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for the biggest sport in the world,” as FBI Director James Comey put it. Police also executed a search warrant at a location in Miami related to the investigation.
The investigation grew out of allegations of payoffs to officials who decided where to hold the next two World Cups, the biggest international event in sports, that landed the games in Russia for 2018 and Qatar in 2022, according to three senior U.S. law enforcement officials. The U.S. was runner-up to Qatar’s win.
The overall alleged wrongdoing reaches back as far as 1991, and in 2004 corruption purportedly played a role in the process of deciding who would host the 2010 World Cup, an honor that eventually fell to South Africa, according to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. An indictment unsealed today lays out other alleged bribery schemes, including some involving high-dollar deals for marketing and broadcasting rights related to various tournaments.
“In short, these individuals, through these organizations, engaged in bribery to decide who would televise games, where the games would be held and who would run the organization overseeing organized soccer worldwide,” Lynch said at a press conference today in New York.
Lynch said that in one example, a single FIFA executive is suspected of amassing a “personal fortune” by taking over $10 million in bribes over a 19-year period.
IRS Chief Criminal Investigator Richard Weber dubbed the scandal the "World Cup of Fraud" and said the U.S. was issuing FIFA a "red card," a reference to penalties given out in soccer games for egregious infractions.
“This organization has been lawless, doing whatever they want for years. This is the way they do business,” Christopher Fusco, a former prosecutor and sports analyst, told ABC News. “Selecting Qatar [to host the 2022 World Cup] was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Ex-FIFA official Jack Warner, a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago and legal resident of the U.S., allegedly agreed to accept bribes before the South Africa World Cup decision –- including a briefcase full of American cash given to an unnamed co-conspirator in a Paris hotel room.
Today Warner posted a video on his Facebook page saying that when he was at FIFA he “conducted [himself] with all FIFA sports practices” and implied the timing of the indictment was related to Trinidad and Tobago’s upcoming presidential election.
“I want to tell you that whatever is planned for me negatively shall not succeed,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service said Warner turned himself into authorities today. He faces extradition to the U.S.
U.S. officials said that an American FIFA official, Charles Blazer, has already pleaded guilty and reportedly wore an undercover wire to record conversations with fellow soccer officials.
The arrests began this morning at a luxury hotel in Zurich, Switzerland, where top FIFA officials were gathering for their yearly meeting. Electronic data and documents were also seized at FIFA's head office in Zurich, the Swiss Federal Office of Justice said in a statement. Those arrested were detained pending extradition at the request of the U.S.
The 47-count indictment against the 14 defendants notes many of their ties to the U.S., and law enforcement officials today said American banks were used in the course of the decades-long scheme.
The guilty pleas of four individuals and two corporate defendants were also unsealed, including that of Blazer, who the DOJ said has forfeited $1.9 million as part of his plea agreement -– one of two payments he’s expected to make.
“The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” Lynch said in a DOJ statement after the arrests. “It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks. And it has profoundly harmed a multitude of victims, from the youth leagues and developing countries that should benefit from the revenue generated by the commercial rights these organizations hold, to the fans at home and throughout the world whose support for the game makes those rights valuable.”
In a statement posted on its website, FIFA said it “welcomes actions that can help contribute to rooting out any wrongdoing in football.”
“We are pleased to see that the investigation is being energetically pursued for the good of football and believe that it will help reinforce measures that FIFA has already taken,” the organization said.
Visa, a top-level FIFA sponsor, said in a statement that "it is important that FIFA makes changes now, so that the focus remain on these going forward. Should FIFA fail to do so, we have informed them that we will reassess our sponsorship."
Also involved in an alleged scheme was a major American sportswear company that the DOJ said was involved in “the payment and receipt of bribes and kickbacks in connection with the sponsorship of CBF (the Brazilian national soccer federation)” in the late 1990s. While the company wasn’t named in the indictment, sports giant Nike is a prominent sponsor on the federation’s website and today the company said it was “cooperating… with authorities.”
“Like fans everywhere, we care passionately about the game and are concerned by the very serious allegations,” the company said in a statement to ABC News. “Nike believes in ethical and fair play both in business and sport and strongly opposes any form of manipulation or bribery. We have been cooperating, and will continue to cooperate, with authorities.”
News of the Zurich arrests was first reported by The New York Times.
The arrests come days ahead of a FIFA congress and presidential election in Zurich, where FIFA’s longtime president, Sepp Blatter, is bidding for a fifth term. Blatter, who has served as president for 17 years, has never been implicated in personal corruption and was not among the officials arrested, but his tenure has been marked by numerous scandals.
Blatter said today it is a “difficult time for football, the fans and for FIFA as an organization.”
“Let me be clear: such misconduct has no place in football and we will ensure that those who engage in it are put out of the game,” Blatter wrote on FIFA’s website.
After news of the arrests and indictment broke today, European soccer officials released a statement calling for FIFA’s presidential election to be delayed.
“Today’s events are a disaster for FIFA and tarnish the image of football as a whole,” says a statement posted on the Union of European Football Associations, FIFA’s European continental confederation. “These events show, once again, that corruption is deeply rooted in FIFA’s culture. There is a need for the whole of FIFA to be ‘rebooted’ and for real reform to be carried out.”
Before Qatar won its bid for the 2022 World Cup, soccer federation officials were warned in advance about the potentially dangerous heat in Qatar that makes its capital, Doha, look like a ghost town during the day. The country is one of the hottest places on earth -- where daytime temperatures regularly reach 124 degrees.
They were also told about allegations by human rights groups of what the groups called medieval conditions for migrant workers there that could cost the lives of hundreds tasked to build the new World Cup stadiums.
But those troubles were apparently ignored in the final vote that came down to Qatar and the U.S., which had named 18 potential host cities. The U.S. lost.
Not long after the vote, allegations surfaced that some FIFA members had been bribed to vote for Qatar. FIFA later launched an internal investigation into the allegations, with Qatar cleared of any major violations.
ABC News' Lee Ferran and Cindy Galli contributed to this report.